Tag Archives: Halloween

Wish Me Luck

The man with the greasy hair grinned. “I guess today’s your lucky day.”

I tested the zip ties around my wrists. “Really? You said you were going to kill me.”

He chuckled. “Never said it was good luck.”

Slipping a rough hand between my arm and bruised ribs, he hauled me to my feet.

The burning pain in my side forced me to gasp. I had been trying to be stoic. Thought maybe if he didn’t know how much pain I was in, he wouldn’t be tempted to poke the bruises. I might have been wrong about that, though.

“Don’t worry. We’re going to have some fun first. But not here. Too close to the trail.” He picked up the shoe that had come off my foot when he dragged me into the bushes and tossed it near me. “Put it back on. No clues left behind.”

“How am I supposed to do that with no hands?”

He glowered for a moment. “If you try anything funny, I’ll break your leg.”

I believed him. He was at least double my weight and maybe as much as a foot taller. I scanned the environs for any offshoots or paths while he tied the laces.

The man stood up and grinned. His teeth looked like he ate rocks.

“No one’s ever going to find you.” He chuckled again. “Or me. The Law’s too stuck on technology.” He gestured to the trees. “All you have to do is go off the grid and you may as well not even exist. I can do anything I want, and they can’t do jack about it.”

“I’m guessing you know something about those other three hikers that have gone missing over the last two months, then.”

He snorted. “That’s only the ones you know about.”

This well-maintained trail was popular among hikers, runners, and cyclists, but the surrounding forest thickened to a gloomy wood on either side. Dense shrubs and fallen trees made it almost unnavigable, but the man picked his way through the underbrush as if he knew where he was going.

He probably lives out here in some Unabomber shack.

“I got a promotion at work. More money, and closer to my house. Really lucky to get it.”

The man grunted. “Why you tellin’ me that?”

“Because I was supposed to meet my mom for dinner tonight. I was going to tell her about it, but… well, I felt like I needed to tell someone.”

He grunted again.

“I don’t suppose you know anything about rare coins, do you?”

“What?” He pushed a branch out of the way for us to pass.

“Yeah. It was the weirdest thing. I was really low on cash a couple of weeks ago, so I scraped together all my loose change and went to the grocery store to put it in the coin sorter thing—you know what I’m talking about? The machine that takes your change and gives you a voucher or gift card you can spend at the store?”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway, there were a couple of coins that got rejected. One of ’em, I’m not sure where it came from. Don’t remember seeing it before. Kinda goldish or coppery circle in the middle, and a silver circle on the outside. Writing on it wasn’t English. Thought I’d find somebody to look at it and tell me if it was worth anything.”

He snorted. “Probably a Mexican peso. Looks like your luck has taken a nosedive.”

“Maybe. But—”

“Would you shut up? I don’t care about your life.”

“Don’t you? You’re trying to steal it.”

He stopped and spun me around to face him. “Enough!”

He raised his fist, but only glared at me. I stumbled as he shoved me forward into the thicket. My head throbbed. Not sure how long I’d been out after he hit me over the head from behind, but it was a while. Hadn’t expected that, but probably should have.

It wasn’t easy to tell how much of the gloom was shade from the trees and how much was from the vanishing sun.

A thorny vine stretched its rigid stems like a razor wire spider’s web from a nearby tree. I managed to scratch up my leg as we pushed on through the thicket, and blood trickled down my calf. Enough for a marker? I brushed my leg against as many plants as I could to brush away the clots and keep it flowing.

I wiped my jaw across my shoulder to dislodge some dried mud. “So, you live around here?”

He growled like a grumpy dog.

A stick snapped somewhere to my left. Something large was moving through the underbrush.

The man heard it, too, and frowned at the dusky woods. He muttered to himself, and I thought I caught the words, “feral hogs,” but I couldn’t be sure.

“One of them survived, you know. She dug her way out of that shallow grave you left her in and crawled to the highway. That’s how I knew you were out here. I’m lucky you finally took the bait.”

He squinted at me, working his jaw back and forth, testing words in his head and biting them back. “Lucky?” he spat. “I’ll make sure your luck runs out. Double-damn sure. Then I’m on the wind, and nobody will ever find me. I’ll hunt again wherever I please.”

He took a moment to smirk before he shoved me again, and we resumed shuffling through the woods.

And there it was, maybe fifty yards ahead. As predicted, the Unabomber shack.

“Looks like a fixer-upper.”

“Shut it,” he snapped.

A deer stepped onto the rough path between us and the shack. It was over-sized for a native whitetail and shadows wrapped around it, even in the clearing, scoffing at the dwindling light.

The man waved his arms. “Get out of here! Go on! Git!”

The deer lowered its head and shook its antlers.

“Frickin’ ruttin’ bucks.” He cast about for a weapon. Not much but vines and forest litter presented itself.

The deer took a few steps toward us. It was just wrong. The creature was bone-thin and its limbs didn’t fit its body. Didn’t look strong enough to hold up its heavy rack of antlers. The poor thing’s face was so skeletal it appeared not to have any flesh on it at all and its eyes were sunken deep into their sockets.

The man shook his head. “Don’t worry, dude. I’ll put you out of your misery soon enough.”

“Bet he just needs food. He looks really hungry.”

“Naw. He’s had all summer to fatten up. That there’s chronic wasting disease. Zombie deer sickness.”

Wonder if anyone’s thought of that for Halloween—Zombie deer.

He waved his arms again and ran a few steps toward the deer. “Get out of the way!”

It continued toward us.

The man looked around again. He broke off a small limb from a yaupon bush. Couldn’t have been any thicker than my pinkie finger, but it was long and bushy.

“Nice flyswatter.”

He shoved me and I toppled over. I wriggled around until I could see what was happening.

The man charged, waving the branch. The deer rose onto its hind legs, towering at eight or nine feet tall over the man.

He froze.

And it kept walking.

The man took a few steps back.

Instead of dainty cloven front hooves, the deer had gnarled, clawed hands. Thick, iron-like talons sprang from its knotty fingers.

And still it came.

The man let out a strangled scream and tried to flee, but he tripped over his own hubris and sprawled in the fallen leaves.

I shook my head. And he thought he was such a predator.

Fading sunlight glistened off strings of slime as the monstrous deer opened its jaws. Its eyes glowed a deep red.

Unable to get up, I watched in morbid fascination as the thing’s nightmarish spikey teeth were fully exposed.

It bent over the fallen man. He screamed and struggled, then went limp. When the beast raised its head again a few minutes later, the lower third of its face was smeared in gore.

It rose and approached me.

The creature stank of rot and decomposition as it leaned over, running a rough hand down my arm. Its wicked talon sliced through the zip tie like hot butter.

“Thank you. I wasn’t sure that vine had drawn enough blood to open the portal for you to come.”

I put my hand over the strange coin in my pocket, to make sure it was still there before I stood up. I had started seeing the monster standing under a tree across the street from my window that night after I returned from the store with my paltry coin-bought groceries.

It had called to me in my dreams.

It knew what I wanted, and it told me what it wanted, so we struck a bargain. One blood sacrifice for one wish. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone—give some monsters to the monster and get something for me in exchange.

As long as I had the coin, it couldn’t hurt me, so why not?

It continued to loom over me.

I got to my feet and dusted pine needles off my butt. “That was a little harder than I expected. I’d been coming out here so much without him showing up that I’d started to think he’d moved on. Hadn’t counted on him bashing me over the head, though. Good to be lucky, I guess. But you got your meal. Now, it’s time for my wish.”

Its voice was like boulders grating against each other. “This will be the second. You have one left, Detective.”

Welfare Check

“Mommy? Why is Mr. Gonzales out there with two policemen?”

Kinsey Lang peered through the front window at her landlord, who waved his hands around as he spoke to a couple of cops.

He always was excitable.

Kinsey forced a smile. “I have no idea, Joanna,” she lied to the nine-year-old. “Take your brother and go to your rooms, okay? It’ll be all right. Don’t worry.” She awkwardly used her left hand to tuck a lock of hair behind her daughter’s ear that had stubbornly stuck to the girl’s forehead.

“C’mon, Charlie. You heard what Mommy said.”

The six-year-old stood, turning his head so he could use his one good eye to navigate. Kinsey watched until they disappeared into the hallway. She sighed and moved a chair against the wall to hide a hole in the sheetrock. The security deposit had been forfeited a long time ago, but she was still embarrassed for Mr. Gonzales to see the damage.

Would he blame her, like Randy always did?

Her husband had sworn it would be different this time. Guess he skipped the rent.

Again.

She knew exactly where it had gone. He’d stumbled in at six this morning reeking of cheap alcohol and cheaper perfume.

Kinsey took another look out the window. Neither officer had any paperwork. When they’d been evicted before, cops had handed her a whole stack of papers. But then again, she hadn’t expected to see any.

This time.

She moved away from the glass and paced around the living room.

Last month she’d scraped together enough money to pay most of the rent from her assistance check and some cash Randy had hidden in the closet. It was Tuesday—her check had come in the mail today. Always sent to her mother’s house, so Randy couldn’t get at it. She’d called to say it arrived.

They had a code.

Hey, Kinsey. Big sale at Walmart. You wanna go?

Sure, Mama.

I’ll come pick you up.

Because the one thing that Randy hated worse than being sober was going shopping, and food had to get into the house somehow. So he let her out, on a short, tight leash, holding the children hostage to make sure she returned.

Did they realize what was happening?

Even the cheapest level of store-brand cookie is still a cookie. Maybe that Mommy always came home with treats when she went shopping was all they needed to know. Safer that way.

He hadn’t always been like that. Or perhaps that was just one of the lies she told when she asked herself why she didn’t leave him. There were also practical considerations.

He said he’d kill her if she left him.

She had nowhere to go, anyway. Her stepfather hated children in general, and hated her specifically, so her mother was afraid to take her in. It would be hellish there, anyway.

Her father? He would have skinned Randy alive. If he hadn’t died of a heart attack when the children were small.

The voices outside got closer. She desperately wanted Mr. Gonzales to stay outside. She wouldn’t be able to bear the look on his face when he stepped inside and looked around.

She frowned as she almost tripped over her husband’s out-stretched leg.

He even managed to miss the couch. Kinsey wrinkled her nose. He reeked of more than booze now. Probably just as well. Easier to clean the tile than the upholstery.

Mr. Gonzales and the officers were on the porch now. She stepped over the pool of blood that spread out from beneath Randy’s head and tucked herself into the utility room. Kinsey sighed. Such a mess in here.

The exterior door to the backyard was unlocked, and she pulled aside the dusty curtain to peek through the dingy glass at the top. A clump of neighbors stood at the edge of the property.

Ah, Lucia Jones. Always were chasing after Randy. I wish you’d caught him.

And Chester Holiday. Biggest gossip in the neighborhood. Wonder what rumors he’ll be spreading tonight? If only he knew.

The key turning in the lock caught Kinsey’s attention.

A male voice. Must be one of the officers. “Mr. Gonzales. Please wait on the porch.”

Footsteps.

Swear words.

They must have seen Randy.

The chirp and squawk of radios.

“Dispatch, we’ve got a 10-55d. Gonna need Homicide and Crime Scene out here… Copy that.”

More footsteps.

The word ‘clear’ repeated several times.

“Oh, God. Hansen? I found the kids.”

More radio chatter.

Footsteps getting closer.

“Where’s the mom?”

“Do you think she…?”

“Haven’t checked in here.”

The door to the utility room flew open and two officers gaped at Kinsey.

It had taken a long time for the photographers to finish and the people in Tyvek suits and surgical booties to start their prowl around the house. Little yellow tents with numbers on them littered the rooms.

Finally, someone taped some paper bags over Randy’s hands and tucked him into a body bag. The gun on the floor next to him went into another bag. The stretcher snapped into place and technicians wheeled him out.

Kinsey felt nothing and wondered if that was normal. She should have been upset. Instead, the Randy-shaped hole in her life was all fog and wind.

Another gurney appeared from the hallway, with a third close behind it. Tears streamed down the face of a man pushing one of the child-sized cadaver pouches.

A voice sighed heavily, right in front of Kinsey, so she shifted her attention.

“I’ll never understand as long as I live how someone could do something like this.”

Kinsey picked a sticky clot of blood out of her hair.

“Who found the bodies?”

“Her mother called for a welfare check. She was supposed to pick Ms. Lang up this afternoon but couldn’t get in touch.”

“What do you think set him off?”

“Who knows?”

“You get her feet.”

Kinsey watched as they pulled her body out of the narrow utility room. She didn’t recognize her own face. Her right arm caught on the edge of the washing machine, bending at a 90° angle between the wrist and elbow where the bone had been shattered. She winced.

Hours later, the crime scene investigators left. The officers left. Yellow tape fluttered in the October breeze.

“Mommy?” Joanna plopped down on the couch.

“What is it, baby?”

“Is Daddy coming back?”

Kinsey’s eyes lingered on the glossy black pool of clotted blood where Randy had lain. “I don’t think so, honey.”

She thought a shadow swirled over it but told herself it was just the tree outside moving in the wind.

“Grandpa!” Charlie shouted.

Kinsey turned her head. “Dad?”

Her father stood near the front door, arms open wide enough to a hug all three of them. “Come on, Kinsey. Let’s go home. Let’s all go home.”

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you are someone you know is in danger at home, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.

True Crime Society

 True Crime Society

“Welcome to our virtual meeting for the Houston chapter of the True Crime Society. It’s Tuesday night live!” Elizabeth smiled at the screen, and stacks of electronic boxes filled with people, smiled back. So far, twenty-seven people had joined.

“We’ll just wait a few minutes before we get started to make sure any stragglers have a chance to get signed in. How’s everybody been this week?”

A woman in a bright yellow shirt began mouthing words, but there was no sound.

“Susan, you’re muted, hon.”

Susan squinted at her screen for a moment. “Can you hear me now?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I just wanted to let everybody know that I’m spending my lunch hour walking in the park. It’s like a mini vacation, you know, to get out of the house and just have a change of scenery. And guess what? I’ve lost five pounds!”

Other members clapped, and there were responses of “Way to go!” “Good for you!”

“Oh, oh, oh!” A young woman with a green China doll haircut and bee sting lips waved her hand. “My uncle got out of the hospital. Nobody thought he was going to make it.”

“Oh, that’s excellent news, Leslie.” Elizabeth smiled and nodded.

A name appeared in the waiting room. Alex Ridgeway. That’s the guy that signed up yesterday afternoon. She clicked the button and admitted him to the call.

A woman with long dark hair appeared in a new box.

Oops! Guess it’s an Alexandra, not an Alexander. “Welcome, Alex. This is our newest member. She joined online yesterday after watching the video on our Insta. Thank you, Patricia, for making that.”

Patricia grinned. “I had a blast doing it.”

Elizabeth shifted her microphone. “Alex, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself, then we’ll get started with our speaker.” Is that barbeque sauce on your cheek? You should always do a mirror check before you turn the camera on.

A faint yowl and a thump came from somewhere. Alex looked over her shoulder, then turned back to face the camera. “The cat’s knocked something over. I was just really curious about the group, so I thought I’d log in and check it out. Killers are fascinating. So, yeah…here I am.”

Alex looked over her shoulder again, then reached up and adjusted her webcam so that it was focused more on her chin and decolletage.

Elizabeth cringed. Can she not see her feed? “Alright, then. Without further ado, I’d like to welcome Agent Samuel Berkowitz of the FBI. He’s with the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, and he specializes in counter-terrorism. His latest book, Free Radical, is about how people get lured into violent organizations, and how to get them back out again. Alright, Sam, take it away.”

“Good evening. I’d like to thank Elizabeth DeSalvo for that great introduction – she made me sound really good. Hope I don’t disappoint. We’re all here together tonight due to the miracle of the internet. Amazing thing, the World Wide Web. Don’t you all agree?”

The people who had their cameras on nodded.

“Now, despite its many charms, the web has a dark side. You don’t know who’s really lurking on the other side of your screen.”

The bang of a slamming door made everyone jump.

Elizabeth broke in, “I’m just going to put everyone on mute. Sorry. I should have done that earlier.”

She glanced at Alex, who was watching something over her shoulder.

“Now, as I was saying,” Agent Berkowitz started.

A young, sandy-haired man appeared in the hallway over Alex’s shoulder. Elizabeth sighed with relief. At least there was someone there with her. Elizabeth had been getting concerned, as the new member had seemed very distracted by noises going on behind her.

Alex swiveled completely around to face the man. He charged at her, rage distorting his face. She just sat there, arms in front as if she were holding something in her lap.

Elizabeth fumbled for her mouse. It took her three tries to click the “Unmute All” button.

“Alex! Alex, run!”

She stood up just as the man reached her. The webcam got knocked over, and there was only a view of a laptop keyboard.

The crack of a gunshot ripped through Elizabeth’s headphones, followed closely by a guttural scream. Oh. My. God. “Alex! Alex!”

Her rectangle disappeared as her connection dropped.

“Elizabeth!” Berkowitz shouted. “Call 9-1-1. Do it now.”

She almost dropped her phone twice, her hands were shaking so badly.

“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

The phone connected to the computer by Bluetooth, causing an echo as the conversation played out over the video conference.

“She’s been shot.” Elizabeth’s voice was so high and thin she didn’t recognize herself.

“Who’s been shot?”

“A-a-alex. We were on a virtual meeting. This man just walked in and shot her. We all saw it.”

“What’s the address ma’am?”

“I. I don’t know. It’s all virtual. She was new…”

“Do you have a membership database?” Berkowitz asked.

“Yes. Of course! Aileen? Are you still-”

“I’m here! Hold on a sec…” Her fingers tapped furiously on the keyboard. “Got it! Alex Ridgeway, 2001 Green River Road, #1130.”

Elizabeth repeated it to the dispatcher.

“Thank you, ma’am. Emergency services are on the way. Are you able to see the victim?”

“No. She disconnected.”

“I see. Can you describe what happened?”

Elizabeth told her what she’d seen. The little red circle in the upper right of her screen caught her eye. “The whole thing is recorded! It was for a webinar, but…”

“Excellent. I need your contact information. A detective may stop by later this evening.”

Elizabeth looked at the wastebasket near her feet. She thought she might vomit. But she managed to give the 9-1-1 operator her details.

Some of the True Crime Society members had signed off, but most were still on. Including Agent Berkowitz. This was the closest most of them had been to a true crime. Elizabeth just wanted to crawl into bed and hide under her covers.

“Okay, then,” Agent Berkowitz said. “I think we’d better save this talk for another time. Is everyone okay?”

Elizabeth could see his eyes scanning the screen full of pale faces. She wasn’t so sure she could answer ‘yes’ to his question.

“It’s normal to be shaken up,” Berkowitz said, looking at each individual frame. “Your body has a strong reaction to violence, because, well, you could be next. If your hands are shaking, you feel nausea, and your breathing is shallow, that’s the adrenalin that flooded through your body when the flight-or-fight reaction kicked in. It’ll pass as the excess adrenalin leaves your system, but it can’t hurt to talk to someone about it – seeing violence first-hand like that can affect the witness almost as much as the victim.”

“Thank you, Agent Berkowitz. I will, um, contact you later in the week.”

“Certainly. When you give the police everyone’s contact information, make sure they know I’m an FBI agent. I’m more than happy to assist with the case, if they would like.”

“I’ll do that.”

Berkowitz dropped off the call.

“Alright, everybody. Stay safe. Go hug your loved ones. We’ll reconvene next week. Good night.”

Elizabeth shut down the call, then got up to make herself a cup of hot tea. She sat on her couch, covered with an afghan, sipping the hot drink and staring out the sliding glass door to the back yard.

It didn’t help. It took another four hours for her to finally feel like she was winding down. She’d just stood up to get ready for bed when the doorbell rang. Elizabeth padded softly on bare feet to peer through the peephole. Two dark-haired men in suits stood there.

“Who is it?”

“Police, ma’am. Detectives Lucas and Rader.”

“Hold your ID up to the peephole.” She was half expecting them, but she was still spooked at the thought of strangers at her door.

They held them up, but between the dim porch light and the fish-eye distortion, Elizabeth couldn’t tell if they were real or fake. But neither looked like the killer. “What do you want?”

“We just need to ask you some questions about the Alex Ridgeway incident.”

They must be real if they know the details. Elizabeth flung open the door. “Come in, come in.”

She led them to the living room. “Can I offer you anything to drink?”

The one that she thought was Rader said, “No, thank you.”

“So, how can I help you?”

“The dispatcher said you might have a recording of the incident,” Lucas replied.

“Yes.” Elizabeth moved to the desk in the far corner and woke the laptop. Once she found the recording of the virtual meeting, she clicked on it and said, “I don’t want to watch this again. I’ll go in the kitchen and get myself some water.”

Rader nodded, his eyes softening. “Yes ma’am. I think that’s a great idea.”

When Elizabeth heard the gunshot, she drank most of the water and had to refill her glass.

“Ma’am?” Detective Lucas called. “Could you send this to me?”

Elizabeth came back into the living room. “Of course. Do you have a card with your email on it?”

“Yes.” He reached into his pocket and drew out a fancy metal business card case. Mother of pearl gleamed on the inside as he opened it.

Elizabeth sat back down at her computer. “I’ll load it up to the cloud, then send you a link. I think it’s too big to email.”

“If you could get a list of all the attendees and their contact information, that’d be helpful.”

“Already downloaded.” She started to upload the video.

“So you’ve never actually met Alex Ridgeway, is that correct?” Lucas asked.

“Yes, that’s correct. Is Alex okay?” Elizabeth suspected she already knew the answer.

Detective Rader shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’m sorry. If it’s any comfort, the cat will be okay, though.”

“Cat?”

“Ridgeway’s cat. Yes. It came through the surgery just fine.”

Elizabeth’s hand flew to her mouth. “What happened to it?”

“The intruder stabbed it, but lucky for the cat, missed any vital organs.”

“How awful. As I said before, I didn’t really know Alex, but she seemed nice.”

The detectives looked at each other. Lucas pulled out his cell phone and scrolled around on it for a moment. He showed her a photo of a young man. Sandy blond hair. Blue eyes.

Elizabeth leaned back. “That’s the killer.”

Detective Lucas shook his head. “No, ma’am. That’s Alex Ridgeway.”

Lechuza

It was hot, for October. Just a little over a week before Halloween, and it was still 90 humid degrees on the Texas Gulf coast.

I sat on the patio, fan on and ice tea in hand. My mom’s two foofoo dogs, Alice and Charlie, panted near the sliding glass door. No one knew their exact parentage, but they were small, white, and fluffy. Mom adored them, but I preferred dog-sized dogs to these snack-sized fur nuggets.

My aunt, who lives in Oregon, had heart surgery, and Mom volunteered to stay with her for a couple of weeks while she recovered. I was voluntold to petsit Alice and Charlie while she was away. I didn’t mind, actually. My SO, Chris and I were going through a rough patch and, frankly, we could use the time apart.

So here I sat, on a Friday evening, drinking ice tea, listening to an audio book, and trying to cook dinner in the outdoor kitchen. I had ditched my work skirt and heels for shorts and flipflops the instant I walked through the door, and weekend mode had taken hold soon after. I could play the book as loud as I wanted, because the closest neighbor was half a mile away, and no one would eavesdrop on the spicy romance I was currently consuming.

The gas grill had a trick to it, and I hadn’t mastered it. There had to be more temperature selections than “Off” and “Incinerate,” but for the life of me, I couldn’t find them. I was about to give up and go into town to see what I could find – this was terra incognita to GrubHub – when I heard it.

A baby crying.

Alice growled, her hackles rising. Charlie tucked his tail and whimpered.

“Shhhh.” I shook my head at the dogs, then peered into the gloom. “Hello?”

I turned on the back yard lights. The open grassy area was lit up like a Friday night football field, but the trees cast eerie shadows that moved and flickered in the night breeze. Not even the halogen penetrated the thicket at the edge of the property, and I felt uneasy, as if I was being watched.

I listened again for the baby, but only heard a few crickets.

“It was just some animal,” I assured the furballs. “A rodent, probably. C’mon pups. Let’s go inside.”

I made sure the gas grill was off, and the dogs scrambled inside the instant I pulled on the door. Giving one last glance over my shoulder before I followed them inside, I saw nothing unusual. I did, however leave the outside lights on.

I was looking for my car keys when my text chime went off. It was Chris. The part I could see read, “I really need to tell you something…” Was he going to tell me he missed me and couldn’t wait for me to get back? That he was glad I was gone and hoped I could stay longer? Not entirely sure I wanted to see the full message, I tapped on the text bubble icon.

“I really need to tell you something. I’m sorry. Moving out. I’ve met someone. Sorry.”

That explained a lot. Honestly, I felt more relieved than sad. I suppose I’d known for some time that we weren’t right for each other. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it. Inertia can be a terrible thing.

How should I reply? It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but nothing I said was going to change anything for either of us. “Fine. Whatever.”

It would be weird, going back to an empty apartment. But I would be fine. Better than fine. I might even stop by the shelter on the way back and adopt a kitten. Chris hated cats. Ha. Maybe I’d get two.

That didn’t solve my immediate problem, though.

“I’m going to get dinner. You two be good,” I told the dogs as I turned on most of the downstairs lights.

The truck stop hadn’t changed much since the last time I was there, years ago. Fried everything. Large portions. Quart-sized red plastic tea glasses. This week’s special was the gizzard platter – greasy, gristly globs surrounded by mounds of fried pickles and French fries. With thin, brown gravy. My years away at college and living in Houston had bent my taste buds in a different direction, and I now had a difficult time finding something on the menu that appealed to me.

“Sue? Good gosh almighty! Your mother didn’t tell me you were in town.”

I looked up to see that my waitress was Margarite Tremont, one of Mom’s oldest friends.

“Yeah. I’m looking after her dogs while she’s taking care of Aunt Cynthia.”

“That’s right. I knew she was going out of town. Didn’t think about the critters. Know what you want, darlin’?”

“Um, I think I’ll have…the grilled cheese on wheat bread with a dinner salad.” I knew the salad was a risk. Hopefully, the lone tomato wedge would be closer to red than green.

“Sure thing. Ice tea to drink, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How could I forget? You and Cody were so close for so long.”

“Right.” I smiled and nodded.

It had almost seemed like fate – our moms were best friends, and we’d known each other since we were babies. We thought we’d stay together, long distance, as we headed out to different colleges, and we did at first. But we inevitably drifted apart.

“I’ll go get your order turned in. Food’ll be right out.”

“Thanks, Miz Tremont.”

She winked at me as she tucked her order book into her apron pocket and made her way back toward the kitchen, pausing to fill a tea glass here and take another order there.

I sat and continued reading that steamy romance on my phone while I waited. I was just getting to the good part when I heard the loud clearing of a throat. Irritated, I looked up.

“’Scuse me, Miss. Is this seat taken?”

“Cody?” Wow. He’d filled out a lot since the last time I’d seen him. He wasn’t the lean, lanky young man I remembered. Still lean, just not lanky. Did his mother text him and tell him to come here? “Of course! Sit down. I didn’t know you were…”

“With the po-lice?”

“The uniform looks good on you.” Really good.

His mother came by with another ice tea. He raised it, as if in a toast. “How’ve you been?”

“Good. How about you? Mom said you got married.”

I hadn’t meant to blurt that out. I was in grad school when she told me, and I was too busy to think much about it then. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.

“I did. But Kelly and I had…irreconcilable differences. Didn’t quite make our first-year anniversary.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

We spent almost two hours catching up. I could have talked longer, but I was starting to yawn, and the puppers still had to go out to do their doggy business.

He walked me to my car. “Drive safe, now.”

I almost told him about the baby crying earlier, but decided it was silly. “I will.”

I didn’t see or hear anything unusual when I took the doglettes out. In fact, there was nothing unusual for the next three days. Other than Cody and I texting each other every evening.

On Tuesday night, I was almost asleep when I heard a thud, then it sounded like a herd of buffalo was running across the roof. Charlie and Alice hid under the bed. Apparently, discretion is the better part of valor when you’re a mini-pup.

“Come on, you two. It must be the wind blowing a tree limb across the roof. Don’t be so silly.”

I got up and pulled back the curtain. Nothing moved under the moonlight, although dark clouds smothered the starlight to the west. I closed the drapes and slipped under the covers, pulling them up to my chin. The roof stomping died down after a few minutes, but my light stayed on all night.

I invited Cody to the house for dinner Wednesday night. When I went to turn Charlie and Alice out in the back yard, he said, “They shouldn’t go out without supervision. There’s coyotes around. And owls. You’d be surprised what they can carry off. And you should be careful, too. One of your neighbors went missing Friday night. Personally, I think he just skipped town to get away from the repo man. But you can’t be too careful. I’ve been driving by, before my shift ends. Just to make sure everything’s okay.”

I wished he would stay over, but he had to work. At least there were no roof walkers that night.

Cody was going to pick me up on Friday to go out. I was almost ready when I heard a knock at the door. I glanced at my watch. He was fifteen minutes early. I started down the stairs to let him in when Alice ran in front of me and bit my ankle, hard enough to draw blood.

“What is wrong with you?” I shouted at her.

She only growled in response.

I went the other way, into the bathroom to get a bandage. By the time I came back, she was nowhere to be seen, but I did hear nails clicking on the hardwood floor below. Maybe I should call the vet in the morning to make sure she’s current on her rabies shots.

“Coming!” I shouted, hoping Cody could hear me as I hurried down the stairs.

Earrings in my hand, I opened the front door. Cody wasn’t there. No one was, and there was no car parked in front of the house. I slammed the door and locked it, then turned on all the downstairs lights, and the outside lights, for good measure.

When Cody arrived ten minutes later, Charlie and Alice greeted him like he was their long-lost best friend.

He looked around at all the lights. “Everything okay?”

“I thought you were at the door a few minutes ago. I heard a knock, but there was no one there.”

He stepped outside and looked around for a moment. When he came back in, he held a nut. “You got that big ole oak tree that overhangs the front porch. It is fall – there’s acorns everywhere on the ground. I’m sure that’s all it was.”

“You’re probably right.” It was then I noticed the dark circles under his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Long night. There was a traffic fatality just down the highway. Driver swerved off the road. Maybe trying to avoid a deer or something. She was more messed up than she should have been – I guess the smell of blood attracted scavengers before anybody found her.”

I shuddered. How awful.

All the lights stayed on. I didn’t want to come back to a dark house.

It helped that Cody came in with me after our evening at the dance hall. Poor guy. He was so tired he’d fallen asleep on the couch by the time I got back into the living room with two glasses of wine. I covered him with an afghan and went upstairs. I will say that I slept better with him in the house, and I would wake up to face the monsters refreshed.

Saturday was Halloween, and Cody was working a double shift. I was surprised at how many kids fit in the back of a pick-up truck to come around to the houses out in the sticks for trick-or-treat. The candy ran out around nine and I turned off the outside lights. I had skipped dinner, and for a while, I didn’t miss it. By 10:30, my stomach was growling and I was low on groceries. The only solution was to drive to the truck stop for another grilled cheese. Nothing else was open, and that can of mushroom soup in the Mom’s pantry just wasn’t going to cut it.

When I returned to the house, I parked in the garage and come through the back door. I was glad of the garage, because the wind had picked up blown in billowing clouds. The dogs were silent. That was unusual. I caught a glimpse of something moving in the living room. My heart skipped a beat.

Was that lightning, or someone shining a flashlight in through the window? Fight or flight kicked in, and I chose fight. I’m not sure why. I charged to the window and was horrified to see the pane sliding up, and long fingers creeping under the sash.

Mom didn’t have security cameras, but I did have my cell phone. I wanted to have a photo to show the cops, so I took several shots with the flash on. Then I called 911 and put the phone on speaker.

The long fingers were slipping away, and I wanted to try and catch this punk. Maybe I could even hold him until the cops rolled up.

“No!” I yelled, grabbing a couple of the fingers and pulling them backward against the wall as hard as I could. Anger flowed through me, and I was more than happy to hurt this jerk trying to break in to my mother’s house. Thunder grumbled in the distance.

The dispatcher stayed on the line with me, and I shouted answers to her questions through gritted teeth. I dropped the phone so I could push down on the window to keep the burglar’s arm trapped. As red and blue lights strobed down the lane towards the house, he gave a final desperate wrench and pulled his arm away, disappearing into the dark.

I opened the front door as Cody and another officer ran up onto the porch. I told them what happened. The other officer went to see if he could track the thief while I showed Cody the photos.

“I know it’s Halloween, but if this is a joke, it isn’t funny.” he said.

“What?” I looked at the screen and almost dropped the phone. Staring back at me was a pale, wrinkled face, eyes clouded as with cataracts, but a black, vertical pupil was clearly visible. Instead of a nose or mouth, it had a curved, sharp beak. A Halloween mask? Was this some sick prank?.

Something dark lay on the window sill.

“What’s this?” Cody picked it up.

It was a large feather, black horizontal bars on a grey background. What was it from? A hawk? An owl? If it was from an owl, it was a huge one.

Outside, a baby cried, then the sound was lost in a boom of thunder. The windows rattled.

“Brooks!” Cody called out. The other officer hadn’t returned from his search, and it had been twenty minutes.

I didn’t want to be alone in the house, so I walked around the property with him, looking for Officer Brooks. There were only four city police officers. Two were here, one was on the way, and the other was on vacation. Cody had called the county sheriff for reinforcements, but they were a half hour away.

We looked all night in the rain for Tony Brooks, and a search team combed the area for two weeks, but he was never found.

But that all happened a long time ago. Cody and I got married not long after that, and had four beautiful babies. Now, our kids have grown up and flown the nest. Cody died in a car crash…has it been two years, now? They never did figure out what made him swerve off the road. But I’m not alone. On short autumn nights, the owls sit outside my window and call to me. Someday soon, I’ll join them.

A Murder of Crows

Jim Bob Renfro needed a helper, and I really needed a summer job. His opening at A Pest Free Palace was available, and it paid $12/hour – a fortune to a high school sophomore with no experience.

Most of the time, I vacuumed up mouse turds and fetched things from the truck. Stuff like that. From the start, I didn’t like Jim Bob – Mr. Renfro – much. Not sure why. He hadn’t said anything mean to me, and he looked like an average middle-aged dude – nothing weird or creepy. One thing, though – he had a flashy gold watch that he was uber-proud of.

Once, he saw me looking at it and said, “You work hard, save your money, and maybe you can get a watch like this. It’s very expensive.”

What I was thinking was, “Did he really pay money for that gaudy bauble?”

I hadn’t been there long when we went to a house for a follow-up visit. We climbed the rickety pull-down ladder to the attic to check the de-ratting progress. I had a trash bag tucked into my belt, and I held the flashlight for him while he rummaged around in a dark corner.

“Open the bag,” he grunted.

He tossed a glue trap with an emaciated, dead rodent into the sack.

I felt queasy.

There was some rustling and squeaking, and Mr. Renfro produced a second glue trap with a terrified, live rat stuck to it, squealing and struggling to get free.

“You’re not going to just toss it in the bag, are you?”

He cocked his head and looked at me as if I’d asked the question in Russian.

I pointed to the trap. “The rat? It’s alive.”

“And?”

“You’re going to throw it in the trash and let it suffer?”

Renfro smirked and dropped the trapped rat onto the floor. Before I realized what he was going to do, he slammed his heel down on the rat’s head.

“Now it’s not suffering. Clean it up.”

I gagged as I tossed the bloody mess into the garbage bag. Maybe I should start looking for another job tomorrow.
Renfro headed toward the ladder. “Put out some more glue traps.”

I did. I just didn’t remove the plastic layer that covered the glue.

By the time I came down and refolded the ladder, Renfro was finishing up with the homeowner.

“Good bye, Mrs. Thompson. We’ll see you next week.”

“Thank you, Jim Bob! I don’t know what I do without you.”

As it turned out, job opportunities were hard to come by, so I had to grit my teeth and stick it out for the rest of the summer. I was never so glad to see August roll around – couldn’t wait for the first day of school.

It was a few months later when my mom called me to the phone. I think we’re the only people I know who actually still had a landline.

“Hey, it’s Jim Bob Renfro. Got a big job Saturday, and I wondered if you could use some extra cash?”

I could definitely use extra cash. “I have plans that night, but I’m free during the day.”

It was Halloween, and Randy – one of my buds – was having his annual party. He and his brothers made their own haunted house in the garage with black plastic sheeting to form the corridors. Sure, sometimes it was cheesy, but they also had a pool, and it was still usually 80 or 90 degrees in October. And his mom went nuts with all the Halloween food. Spider cupcakes, mummy meatballs, witch’s fingers breadsticks. And then some.

“If we start by eight, we should be done in the early afternoon.”

I was saving up for a car, for when I got my driver’s license over the summer. I needed every penny I could get, because Dad said I had to pay the insurance, too.

“Sure. See you Saturday morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Crows. Filthy birds, even worse than pigeons. Started roosting on an office building, and we have to encourage them to leave.”

“Oh?” I was afraid to ask.

“We have to install bird spikes, stuff like that. I’ll tell you all about it Saturday.”

Saturday was a little chilly, and I was glad I had a jacket when my mom dropped me off at A Pest Free Palace’s office. Being here reminded me how much I hated this job. Probably too late to call in sick. I just had to think of the beautiful car I would buy with my saved-up money.

Mr. Renfro waved at my mom as he opened the door. She drove away. I wanted to run after her. But if I wanted my own car, I had to come up with the cash. I forced a smile.

“Morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Morning. Everything’s already loaded up. Let’s get ‘er done.”

The crow-plagued office building was across our small town, at the edge of the city park. Fifteen minutes after setting off, we arrived. A few of the black birds watched us from the trees as we tacked down bird spikes, installed rotating reflectors, and hooked up a motion-activated predator call broadcaster. Sometimes they flapped around and cawed to each other, but mostly they just watched. I felt like I was trespassing.

As I walked across the roof to string some cable, I heard a loud crunch and the roof started to give way. I threw myself backward and landed on my butt. At least my foot didn’t go all the way through the shingles – just left a big dent. Renfro didn’t ask if I was okay, but he did take a picture to send to the building manager to they could get a roofer up to repair it. Priorities, I guess.

When we finally got the equipment installed, we sat under the awning over the office’s front door and took a break. I seriously wished I’d brought more than a PBJ sandwich and an apple.

“Now,” Renfro said between bites of his own meal. “There’s one more thing we have to do.”

I’m not sure why this made the food in my stomach curdle. Maybe it was the way he looked at the watching crows.

“Pigeons, sparrows, they’d see all that stuff and just go away. Not crows, though. They’re too smart for their own good. They’ll find ways around the spikes, and realize the reflectors aren’t a threat. Nope, crows, you have to send them a message.”

I didn’t like the way that sounded. I just nodded. Something bad was getting ready to happen, I could feel it coming.

Renfro packed up his lunch kit and took it to the truck. When he came back, he had a BB gun and a sparkly glass bead the size of a grape.

He chuckled softly. “They can’t resist something shiny. Watch this.”

Renfro rolled the bead out onto the grass beneath the tree where the crows were perched. They cocked their heads from one side to the other, trying to get a better look. After muttering amongst themselves, they hopped, branch by branch, to the lowest part of the tree. One must have been the lookout, because it stayed perched in the leaves and kept its beady little eyes on us while the other three flew down to investigate.

Renfro carefully sighted in on the middle crow in a group of three and pop! Down went the bird, struggling and flapping on the ground. The other three flew off, cawing loudly.

I don’t think you should have done that.

He took the bird by the feet and carried up onto the roof. He used a heavy-duty staple gun to secure it to the roof, out of sight from the street, but easy to see if you were a crow flying over the building. It squawked both times he stapled it, and I jumped each time. I couldn’t really see it, but I could guess what he was doing.

You really, really should not have done that.

“Welp, that’s it. The crows won’t roost here anymore.”

He gave me $100 in cash and dropped me at my house – it was on the way back to his shop. The bills were new and crisp, but they felt dirty.

I tried playing Assassin’s Craft online for a while, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor crow stapled to the roof. My mom had dabbled in reupholstering chairs, so I found her tack removal tool and stuck it in my pocket, pulling my shirt over the long bit of the mini-crowbar that stuck out of my jeans.

“I’m going to ride my bike,” I told my dad.

He barely looked up. “Don’t be gone too long if you want a ride to Randy’s at seven thirty.”

“I know.”

It took about twenty minutes to get to the office where we’d worked earlier, and dusk was just settling in. I didn’t have a ladder, but I pulled the fire escape down and used that to get up on the roof.

There were crows everywhere. They surrounded the bird that Renfro had stapled down, and they moved silently out of my way as I approached their fallen comrade.

I pulled up the staples, and the bird just laid there limply. I thought it was dead, but one of its eyes opened. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I couldn’t leave it there. I put it inside my shirt and tucked the shirt into my pants.

As I started toward the fire escape, a flash of something shiny and gold caught my eye. When I turned towards it, I noticed a huge hole in the roof, where I’d nearly fallen through earlier. What had made it collapse?

Curiosity was not my friend. I looked over the edge.

Lying on the polished concrete below was Mr. Renfro. What on earth could have brought him back to the office building? He knew the hole was there – he took a picture of it. I thought of the shiny object at the edge of the collapsed roof and swallowed hard.

I called 911and scurried down the fire escape.

The fire department broke through the glass doors, but it was too late for Mr. Renfro. They suddenly became very suspicious of what I was doing there. I called my mom to come get me, and I told them what had happened. Everything. I even pulled the half-dead crow out of my shirt to show them.

One of the police officers looked at him and said, “My girlfriend’s a wildlife rehabber. Why don’t you let me take him to her?”

I handed the bird over. What was I going to do with it?

Needless to say, I didn’t make it to Randy’s party. After taking such a long time to go to sleep, I was annoyed at being woken up at a quarter of six by cawing crows. Then came the pecking. There were birds pecking on my bedroom window. Irritated, I went to shoo them away.

I opened the window. “Let me sleep, you idiot birds!”

Something shiny glittered on the window sill. I rubbed my eyes and picked it up.

It was Mr. Renfro’s watch.

The Seventh Circle

Mr. Hughes loved Halloween.

He once told me that it had been his wife’s favorite holiday, and he kept up the decorating to honor her after she’d died. An elaborate shrine to the dead, if you will. Instead of “Sweets for the sweet,” “Deads for the dead?” But I digress.

Every year, he created a different theme. Last year had been the best yet. A realistic cemetery erupted from his yard one morning. Bats hung from the trees, and giant spider webs stretched between tombstones. On Halloween night, he added a fog machine, and a hidden projector threw stalking specters against a nearly invisible mesh. Younger children were too scared to come close to the trick-or-treat bowl, but the older ones loved it – it was almost like a free haunted house.

He always made a costume that matched the decorations. One year, I helped him pass out candy, and he was surprisingly good at making me up like a zombie. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and it terrified me for a moment before I realized that it was me. The makeup was too realistic, too perfect. Made me think of the nightmares I used to have when I was in the hospital. I didn’t sleep that night. Or the next one. By the time I got to fifty-six hours, I was starting to hallucinate. I collapsed on the sofa and slept twelve hours straight. But at least I was too tired to dream. Another plus: my house was incredibly clean and my closets were more organized than they’d ever been.

The year after that, he did a werewolf scene. A disguised post supported a leaping canine monster, and I couldn’t tell you how creepy it was to go to my mailbox and be faced with a werewolf in mid-attack. Did I mention that it moved? It gave me the heebie-jeebies. Reminded me too much of the time my aunt’s big dog attacked me when I was little. Still have the scars on my jaw. I even go the long way around out of the neighborhood so I don’t have to drive past that monstrosity on the way to work. I couldn’t even look out the living room window in the evening – those glowing eyes haunted my nightmares.

Aside from his Halloween obsession, Mr. Hughes isn’t a bad neighbor. If you don’t mind obsessive grass mowing. At seven in the morning. But he always smiles and waves when he sees me. Although I suspect he might have been the one to complain to the HOA about my edging. That’s how the lawn service company does it. Not my fault, is it?

But this year, he’s got the most over-the-top tableau I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, given his decorations. It looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Layers of ragged nylon fabric dance in the breeze of a fan, simulating flames. Damned souls writhe in the fires, and motion sensor-triggered sound effects wail in anguish. An enormous three-faced Lucifer head with pointed teeth and gaping maws was tethered between the two oak trees.

The night he put out the display, I woke up screaming. It had been months since that happened. I had to call my shrink at three AM. I think it’s probably been two years since the last time I had to do that.

Mr. Hughes. It was almost like he knew. Knew my most vulnerable spot, then gleefully sucker punched me. Was he trying to drive me insane? He couldn’t possibly know. But why? Why on earth would he choose this scene?

Surely, if he had been there, listening to my wife and kids screaming as the house blazed around them, he wouldn’t have done it. There was nothing I could have done as I lay on the ground, grass slick with my own blood, jagged bone ends sticking out of my thighs. I had tried to drag myself to the front door, but my legs were worse than useless. An explosion – later I found it was a gas line – shattered the windows and roared through the house like the Devil himself. I had been upstairs and got thrown through a picture window into the front yard. I lived. Not sure if it was a blessing or a curse. I had survived Hell, and for what? To be mocked by Halloween decorations? But this year, I could do something about it. I called up Mr. Hughes and offered to help with the final touches.

***

Sunday, Halloween morning, was cool and dull. Thin clouds lazed by, briefly exposing the wan sun. Clots of neighbors paused on the sidewalk, admiring Mr. Hughes’ pièce de résistance. A very realistic corpse had been added to one of the jaws of the three-faced Satan. The body’s head and neck vanished into dark mouth, and the arms were raised, hands against the teeth that were trying to chomp it down. The grass had been torn up, as if there had been an epic struggle. The character wore the kind of robe common to Christmas pageants – perhaps he was meant to be Judas? But I’m not really sure. Almost as soon as I’d arrived at Mr. Hughes’ house the prior evening, he’d offered me whiskey from an expensive, imported bottle. We each had a shot, then another. We went outside to look at the display, and he told me that this would probably be the last year of his Halloween extravaganzas. I agreed, fingering the length of clothesline I had in my pocket.

Watching from my darkened window, I could see that the neighbors’ concern increased to panic as Halloween evening stretched on, and Mr. Hughes had not appeared to pass out candy. I saw Mrs. Montoya, his other next door neighbor, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house, talking on her cell phone. I went to see what she was up to.

She ended the call before I got out there, and as I got closer, I could see that she was crying.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Montoya?” I kept it formal – I didn’t know her all that well.

She sniffled before she turned to me. “Ernie seems to be missing – he hasn’t come out with candy, and he won’t pick up the phone. I’ve called the police. I’m afraid he may need to go to the hospital.”

Too late for that. “Really? Why?”

“He was diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer. He only has a few months to live.”

“I didn’t know. I’m very sorry to hear that.” You have no idea how sorry.

I sat on the curb and started to laugh. I was still laughing when the police arrived.

Punch

By Emil G. Skrubb

Today, I learned to never trust Halloween dances. They may seem innocent at first, but never, ever fall into their trap.

Allow me to explain.

It was Friday, October 30th, and everyone was hyped up for the big Halloween dance after school. I didn’t plan to attend, since none of my friends were going to be there, but everyone kept on trying to convince me that it would be fun.

“Why aren’t you coming to the dance? It’ll be fun!” they all said. I didn’t even know these people. It was almost like they were in some sort of Halloween-dance cult. Seriously, why can’t people mind their own business? It’s not like I had five bucks to spare, anyway. I needed that money to buy snacks from the vending machine! I could be doing things with my life instead of wasting my money at some boring dance. I had been to these kinds of things before, and they were rarely anything but flashing lights and LOTS of noise.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is when even the teachers started nagging me to go. “Who’s going to the Halloween dance tonight?” they would ask. Most everyone’s hands went up. They tried all sorts of things to convince us to show up, including offering extra credit and free candy if we came.

“Fine, I’ll go to your Halloween party,” I sighed, exhausted from everyone annoying me and trying to convince me. It became clear that they wouldn’t give up anytime soon. Besides, I really needed that extra credit.

After the last bell rang and we were let out of class, I grabbed my things from my locker and walked downstairs hesitantly. There was still a chance to get on the bus and leave! Then, I remembered the extra credit. I didn’t really have much of a choice at this point. I walked up to the admission table, paid my five dollars, and got a bright pink wristband.

“Have fun!” grinned the teacher in charge of admission. I was positive that I wouldn’t. I walked into the cafeteria, which was covered in cheesy Halloween decorations that were probably from the local dollar store. It was absolutely full of people, every one of them screaming and dancing. I made my way to the refreshments, possibly the only redeeming factor of this so-called party, and tried not to get trampled in the process. Unfortunately, all the good food had been eaten already, and all that was left were the less popular choices. I decided to pass. I mean, it’s not like any of it was healthy enough to justify eating it, anyway. Just then, they started blasting my least favorite song at full volume. I desperately tried to cover my ears, but I could still hear it clearly.

All of a sudden, loud, grating feedback played over the speakers. Nobody else seemed to notice; they were too caught up in the party. Then, it happened again. They should really get their sound system fixed!

I suddenly got this overwhelming feeling that something was horribly, horribly wrong. I couldn’t put my finger what it was, but I felt like I had to get out of there. I ran to the front door, but I was blocked by the principal.

“Leaving so soon? Don’t go yet! We’re just getting started!”

I screamed and ran to the other door. I tried to open it, but it was locked! Just then, the principal took the mic.

“It seems that someone wants to leave early. We can’t let THAT happen, can we?”

All eyes turned to me. Everyone had this disturbing, devilish grin. “Of course we can’t!”

They all surrounded me, still smiling like maniacs. “Don’t be afraid! It’ll only hurt a little!”

“W-what will?! What are you going to do to me?!” I cried.

“Oh, you’ll see!” they replied cheerfully, as if this was a completely normal thing that they all seemed to enjoy.

They took me backstage, right by the speakers, and pulled out knives. Lots and lots of knives. They had what appeared to be a punch bowl with them.

Well, now I know what caused the feedback. And it wasn’t the sound system, after all…

If you ever go to Halloween parties, remember not to drink the punch. But in the event that you do… Well, you’ll see!